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The Art of Business and the Business of Art.
In this season 3 episode of Back of the Napkin, Kelly O'Neill, owner of Fusion of Iron and Earth, shares the inspiring story of her transition from the corporate world to starting a small business from little more than clay, scrap metal, sheer determination, and the passion to honor her father's legacy.
She was raised in the 1970s, when a generation of women demanded change, and fulfilled an emerging set of expectations. Kelly O’Neill spent her formative years in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a suburban enclave outside Detroit, where her mom and Dad formulated a plan for her future: graduate college, land a corporate job, achieve success, enjoy life. And so she did. O’Neill graduated from Michigan State University – the first college graduate in her family – and rose through the ranks at General Motors.
As she did, O’Neill’s father, Dennis, grew his home improvement business and tinkered in his shed with a variety of artistic endeavors. His unique take on thrown pottery moved from passion to profit, with Dennis eventually showing and selling his work at local art shows. Kelly marveled at her dad’s work, yet she found something missing. “I always looked up to him for his ability to master anything and everything,” said O’Neill. “He would display his pots beautifully. But from a competitive point of view, his pots looked like everyone else's.”
O’Neill took a welding course at Oakland Community College so she could create holders or stands to differentiate his work. Sadly, their plans to do a show together derailed after her father’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. “So, when he passed, he was very much a prolific potter… he had pottery in every stage, and I told my Mom that I would finish his work,” said O’Neill.
With encouragement from her mom and support from the local arts community, O’Neill continued her father’s work while coming of age as an artist herself. Her joy for her own work grew and O’Neill took the leap from the corporate world to the art world. Her first show, Art on the Grand, was her dad’s favorite.
Putting the Work in Network.
O’Neill acknowledges she had a head start when she opened Fusion of Iron and Earth. She leveraged her dad’s connections, clientele, professional network and equipment. Plus, she spent years working with small business owners during her career at GM. “I learned the ins and outs and how important cashflow is, and income, and profitability and expenses and how to balance all of that,” said O’Neill. “I applied many of those skills to my own business.”
With that foundation, O’Neill set out to the learn the art industry. “How do people sell their art? What are the margins that people sell their art for? What are the ins and outs of success? So, I did a lot of research and interviews and the community of artists is a welcoming community. Naturally, they're creative and they're independent, but they love to share their stories and their experiences. So, I had an open invitation to learn from them. And that's what I did, not to mention joining as many artists groups and forums as I could,” said O’Neill.
The Artist and Art of Branding.
O’Neill notes that differentiation, honesty and integrity are all crucial elements in building a brand. The best brands establish a promise to the marketplace and fulfill that promise in everything they do. That holds true for big business, small business, and artists.
O’Neill focused on metal work, sculptures and designing with 100% recycled metal whenever possible. “My life would be easier if I just purchased the metal,” said O’Neill. “But I think aesthetically, I think it was important for me to tell a story of taking something that perhaps was designed for some utility and reforming it, or reshaping it, or adding something to it, to create more of an art form.”
She recommends that artists and other small business owners take time to identify their brand identity and define how to carve out that identity… all while staying true to yourself. “Especially as an artist, it really has to be true to who you are,” said O’Neill. “Because as an artist, the brand is you.”
Giving Back to Help Others Grow.
Helping others has always been a passion for O’Neill, beginning with her time in the corporate world. As her artistic journey continued, that passion carried over. “I've never felt so satisfied as a human being in the sense that I'm helping others, that hopefully will be successful, too,” said O’Neill.
She started volunteering at the Mint Artists Guild three years ago. “They (Mint) help young Detroit teens who have a proclivity for art, and natural talent, but don't necessarily have the money, or the means, or the contacts to be a successful artist,” said O’Neill. “I've been working with them on their marketing, I help them with their training. I'll do presentation skill courses and we'll talk about branding and how to brand themselves as an artist.”
The Art of Saying “Yes!”
O’Neill is ready to embrace whatever comes next. When asked to do something, she instinctively says “Yes!”, and then goes about figuring how to do it. “I think that's why I continue to evolve as an artist,” said O’Neill. “It's that process of learning something new, or trying something new, or expanding my art into a different area, that's how I've been growing.”
That philosophy seems to be paying off. O’Neill was recently admitted to ArtPrize, a prestigious, international art competition in Grand Rapids being held in the fall. In addition, she just got a commission for a stainless-steel sculpture that she has never done before. “I'm always looking to learn something new, try something new, experience something new,” said O’Neill. “I don't know what's next, but I know I'm going to say yes!”
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